13 Investigates what schools must release in alleged assaults, what happens when they don't

Thursday, May 4, 2023
What schools can and can't release in alleged assaults
When your child is the victim of an alleged crime at school, what details does the district have give you?

ALVIN, Texas (KTRK) -- When the mother of a student with special needs says she got a call alleging her then-18-year-old daughter had been sexually assaulted at school in November 2021, she wanted to know exactly what happened.

Since then, the teen's family has been pushing to find out more about the Alvin Independent School District's investigation into the alleged incident but claims they haven't learned much.

"I got a handwritten note. That's all I got," the teen's mother said.

We are not naming the student or her family because of the nature of her case.

Across the state, districts reported 108 instances where a student was accused of sex assault at a school or school-sponsored event during the 2021-22 school year, according to the Texas Education Agency.

13 Investigates wanted to know what happened in the alleged assault at Alvin ISD, but our request was partially denied, and it's all because state law allows government agencies and school districts to withhold some information from the public.

"The Texas Public Information Act is a law passed by the Legislature that gives all citizens the right to full information from Texas agencies, government-funded operations, upon the request of any citizen to that organization," Chip Stewart, a professor of journalism at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, said. "There are some exceptions, of course, and what happens is you file a request for a record (to an agency). ... They have 10 business days to either give you the records, to tell you why they're not giving you the records or to appeal to the Attorney General's Office to ask for clarification if they're not sure whether they should give you records."

RELATED: Mom claims Alvin ISD said daughter with special needs consented before alleged sexual assault

Alvin ISD sent our request for the district's police report on the incident to the Texas Attorney General's Office, which said because we know the identity of the person involved, the district can withhold the information to "protect the privacy of the individual whom the information relates to."

The district told us last summer that its police department investigated the alleged assault and turned over more than 100 pages of what they found to the district attorney's office. After reviewing the case, Alvin ISD told us a Brazoria County grand jury declined to file charges against the boy who had been accused of assault.

In a statement released last year by their attorney, the boy's mother said her special needs son has autism and the cognitive abilities of an elementary school student.

"The boy's family is shocked and distressed by the way Alvin ISD has failed to do more to protect its students from such false allegations. The mother fears that her son will be subjected to intimidation and violence if more is not done to help him," the attorney said at the time.

We spoke with that attorney this week, who said the boy's family also has not received a copy of the initial police report.

RELATED: Districtwide Alvin ISD email regarding rape accusations frustrating for families involved

A year and a half later, the girl's family says they also don't know what the investigation found because the school district won't give them a copy of what the police found.

"There's been calls. There's been a couple of emails (saying), 'We're working on it. We have to redact this.' Does it take over a year to redact a form? I don't think so," the girl's mother said. "I've gotten nothing from the school. They won't ever give me anything. They don't want anything on record. It is my right. It is my daughter's right."

Alvin ISD told us this week it doesn't have any police reports to release.

The lack of transparency is frustrating for families, but 13 Investigates found it's not uncommon for local school districts.

Last November, we told you about a Katy Independent School District teacher who is accused of taking naked photos and videos inside her elementary school classroom and posting them to Reddit.

13 Investigates requested her personnel record and any police reports involving her, but Katy ISD also sent our request to the AG's office asking if they could withhold some of it.

The district was required to release a disciplinary letter sent to the teacher as well as her resignation letter. They also released some emails and text messages between the teacher and another employee.

But, they weren't required to release her performance evaluation, and we received 19 pages of completely blacked-out documents.

Stewart, an open records expert who isn't involved in either case, said it is getting increasingly difficult to get records released from school districts.

"There's just always, unfortunately, not just in Texas, but across the country, a reluctance of public officials to comply with these open records laws, and the consequence for not complying with them is are usually absent or very low," Stewart said.

When records are denied, it's a time-consuming and sometimes expensive fight.

"That's a real challenge for citizens, just regular people who want to know what their school district is up to, to know what their city council is up to," Stewart said. "We're entitled to the records of the government because they're not the government's records, they're our records. Our tax dollars go to pay for them, and actually having some teeth in the law and making it actually work for people has been frustrating and a real challenge, not just for the Texas Public Information Act, but for all State Open Records laws and the federal Freedom of Information Act across the country."

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